We’re back to classes, which means it’s time to share what we learned. This week, we started preparing for the holidays by creating candles, pomanders, and other holiday themed gifts. We poured, dipped, wrapped, and painted candles while learning a little about their history. We learned that the first candles were made by the ancient Egyptians. The first were reeds dipped in wax but they didn’t have wicks, so some people don’t consider them candles. The Egyptians were the first to create beeswax candles too, but many different cultures around the world were working on the idea of candles. The Romans were dipping candles. The Qin dynasty in China created candles from whale fat, while the Japanese made candles from bugs and seeds. In India, candles were made from the cinnamon tree, while in Tibet they used yak butter. The indigenous people of Oregon to Alaska used candlefish, which have so much fat that you could light a dried fish as a light source.
The Middle Ages was an important time for candles. Many people had used olive oil lamps for light under the Roman Empire, but when it collapsed, olive oil was hard to come by, so they needed an alternative light source. Most candles in Medieval Europe were made of tallow, which is animal fat. People called chandlers came to the house to create candles from the houses collected fat. These candles were smoky and bad smelling because they contain glycerin. Some people could make candle of beeswax, which smelled a lot better and created less smoke, but beeswax was a lot harder to come by so these candles were expensive.
American colonial women began experimenting with bayberry, which made another nice smelling candle, but it took 15 pounds of berries to make one pound of wax so it was quite difficult. The whaling ships of the 18th century led to the use of spermaceti, or fat from the head of sperm whales, to make candles. In 1825, they experimented with stearin and then 1848 led to the creation of parrafin candles from leftovers in the distilling of oil. With electric lights came the decline of the candle industry, but they soon found a way to make the candle more about creating pleasant smells.
Another item used to create pleasant smell is the pomander. Although they were originally fancy spherical containers to contain pleasant spices from far away to cover the smell of a world where few people bathed and trash and human waste was merely thrown into the street. It wasn’t just to cover the bad smell for the sake of pleasant smells though. They believed disease was transmitted through bad smells, so they just tried to smell pleasant scents. Over time, it became a holiday gift. This was a great gift, as oranges and cloves were both luxuries from afar, smelled wonderful, and represented a gift that took time to create.